Monday, July 8, 2013

Unemployment Rate? Which Unemployment Rate?

Today I think I finally understand something that's been mystifying me for years. Why are quoted employment and unemployment figures for people with disabilities all over the map?

For at least the last 20 years, I have heard figures between 60% and 75% cited as the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. Those are very high figures, yet sadly they don't seem out of line with reality. I've quoted figures like that to all sorts of audiences, and nobody ever questioned me about them. The high unemployment figures may or may not seem "right" to people, but they always seemed to be accepted as more or less accurate.

Then a couple of years ago I started seeing reports of unemployment rates more like 20% or less. That's quite a difference. Which figures are correct?

I figured these had to be two entirely different measures, encompassing different populations but under similar-sounding labels. But I could never find an explanation, until today. If you want to get a more accurate and nuanced picture of employment and unemployment of people with disabilities … and you don't mind reading figures multiple times and thinking hard about statistics … Read this June 12, 2013 release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary.

Yes, I know … snooze.

The summary worth studying, because while the situation is bad, it is comprehensible.

First of all, it's important to know that the "Unemployment Rate" you hear every month on the evening news is a more narrow measurement than the simple term suggests. It is the rate of joblessness only among people who:

a. Are employed, full time or part time, or
b. Are available for work (i.e., not retired or acutely sick), and
c. Have looked for work in the past 4 weeks.

So, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities in 2012 was 13.4%, compared to an unemployment rate for people without disabilities of 7.9% in the same year. This does not include retired people, children younger than 16, or anyone unemployed who has not looked for work in the 4 weeks before being polled. So, it does not count people with disabilities who … whatever their thoughts and long-term dreams about working … are essentially not looking for work.

On the other hand, there's the "Employment-Population Ratio" ... a measure of how many people are employed ... which in 2012 was 17.8% for people with disabilities, and 63.9% for people without disabilities. These figures do count retired people, children, and anyone of working age who is not employed, for whatever reason. These are more like the figures I used to hear.

The narrower comparison, which focuses just on people who are actively in the labor market … employed or actively looking for jobs … indicates that people with disabilities have a 5.5% higher unemployment rate than non-disabled people. (13.4% disabled unemployed minus 7.9% non-disabled unemployed).

By the broader measure, including people who are unemployed for any reason, including age and short or long-term choice, shows an employment gap of 46.1% between disabled and non-disabled people, if you count everyone. (17.8% disabled employed minus 63.9% non-disabled employed). That gap represents people with disabilities who can't find work but seek it, but also those too young or too old to work, and people who for whatever reason are not actively looking for work when the poll is taken.

Which kind of measurement is the most informative?

Actually, I think you need them both. The reasons why some people with disabilities are employed and some are not are very complex, involving for each person a unique mix of the disability itself, plus training and credentials, past work experience, references, community connections, motivation, perseverance, the state of the local and national economy, and the rise and decline of specific industries and professions. A person with a disability who hasn't looked for a job in over a year … and may even tell you he or she isn't interested in working … may in fact have in mind various scenarios for eventually being employed. So, it's important to know the absolute number of people with disabilities who are unemployed, and be able to compare that percentage with the percentage of non-disabled people who are unemployed. The narrower figure, in turn, gives you a picture of the odds you may face  once you decide to look for working a focused way … as opposed to just thinking about it.

Both measurements also confirm what I'm pretty sure we all knew, which is that there is an employment gap for people with disabilities that can't be fully explained by our disabilities themselves. It is not a natural gap. It's a gap that shouldn't be there at all.

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